While there are numerous customs and traditions associated with celebrating Hanukkah at home, there is not necessarily one right way to celebrate the Festival of Lights.
The only obligation we have as Jews is to kindle our hanukkiyot (Hanukkah menorah). One light is kindled on the first night, and an additional light is added each succeeding night so that eight lights shine on the eighth night. On the first night, we recite three blessings: one to observe the commandment of lighting the lights ofHanukkah (l'hadlik ner shel Hanukkah), another to recall the miracle associated with this day (she-asah nisim laavoteinu), and the third to recognize the sacred occasion that we celebrate (shehecheyanu).1 The first two blessings are also recited on each of the following seven nights.
Aside from lighting our candles so that our hanukkiyot may shine, a variety of customs have emerged as part of the Hanukkah celebration. The dreidel, a spinning top, emerged as the main game piece of a European gambling game. The four sides of the dreidel are marked with four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hey, and shin, each of which correspond to a specific value. These letters were reinterpreted to be an acronym for the phrase Neis Gadol Hayah Sham – "a great miracle happened there" – referring to the miracle of the oil, which was used to light the ner tamid (eternal light), and lasted for eight nights rather than the one night that the Maccabees anticipated.2
Another important part of the Hanukkah celebration are the latkes – or any food made with a significant amount of oil. Other fried foods, such as sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), have been included on the Hanukkah menu as well. While the origins of eating these oil-filled delicacies are unclear, many people assert that by eating the latkes and sufganiyot, we are reminded of the miracle of the Maccabees.3
And, of course, perhaps the most well-known custom of Hanukkah is the giving of gifts – one for each night of the festival. A popular gift for children is gelt. Yiddish for money, this can be a gift of actual coins, or chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. There is no real origin of the giving of presents during Hanukkah, but one might suggest that this custom emerged in response to the gift-giving element of Christmas, which occurs around or near the season of Hanukkah. A contemporary interpretation of this custom is perhaps that the giving of presents represents another way for us to be reminded that this holiday, while minor, should be one of joy rather than sadness.
For families, Hanukkah is also a perfect time for arts and crafts, reading stories, and even doing social action work. When we celebrate our festival together as a family, as well as do mitzvot that give back to our communities, we can truly see not only the eternal light that shined for eight nights, but the internal lights that shine our own greatness as well. That indeed is a miracle.4
- Hanukkah blessing text and audio examples blessings are available at urj.org
- Daniel Syme, The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (URJ Press, New York: 2004) 40-43.
- Syme, 43-44
- For family activities, check out this list
P.J. Schwartz was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-HIR) in Cincinnati, OH in June 2013 and now serves as the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Israel in Westport, CT.